Debunking the myths of Israel/Palestine

Over the past 120 years, the Zionist movement and later the Israeli state have constructed a web of fallacies that surround the creation of Israel and the ongoing conflict, and which also seek to justify Israel’s ethnic cleansing and oppression of the Palestinian people.

This web of historical and current fallacies, which are often repeated by the capitalist media and Western governments seeking to extend their imperialist outreach in the Middle East, try not only to mystify the origins of the conflict but also to ensure that a just solution can never be reached.

Only through debunking these myths, separating the historical truth from the Zionist fiction, can we understand the origin and causes of the conflict.

Myth #1: The conflict is religious

Zionist mythology often casts the Israel-Palestine conflict as a centuries-old religious conflict between Jews and Palestinian Arabs. This is a historical fiction. The reality is a settler-colonial conflict, which emerged only in the early 20th century.

Zionism, the ideological foundation on which the Israeli state is built, emerged in the late 19th century in reaction to European anti-Semitism and waves of anti-Jewish pogroms.

Reacting to the persecution faced by Jews in the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires, a small section of the European Jewish petty bourgeoisie began to subscribe to the idea that anti-Semitism was not a result of historical developments but an inevitable occurrence as long as Jews lived among non-Jews. Consequently, the Zionists began a campaign to establish a “national” homeland, despite the fact that they did not constitute a nation, but a religious and cultural group.

Theodore Herzl, the founding father of the Zionist movement, understood that the world was already carved up by competing colonial powers and that it might not be possible to establish a Jewish “national homeland” in Palestine. Writing in his 1896 political tract, The Jewish State, Herzl asked, “Shall we choose Palestine or Argentina?”

He noted that the Zionist movement would “take what is given us, and what is selected by the Jewish public opinion”. Herzl also explored the possibility of establishing a national homeland in Angola, Kenya and North Africa. The year before his death in 1904, Herzl also enthusiastically accepted a British offer to establish a Jewish state in Uganda. However, in 1905, the Zionist Congress rejected the plan in favour of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine.

Myth#2: Israel is not a colonial settler state

Settler colonial societies are a distinct type of imperialist formation, which are premised on the racist elimination of the indigenous population through various means, including ethnic cleansing, genocide and/or assimilation.

Unlike other forms of colonialism that centre on the exploitation of resources, settler colonialism is primarily concerned with the control of territory and the elimination of the indigenous population in order to replace it with a settler population. As the late Australian academic and leading settler-colonial theorist, Patrick Wolfe, notes: “settler colonialism destroys to replace”.

Before, during and after Israel’s foundation, the Zionist movement sought to control as much of historic Palestine as possible, establishing a permanent settler population by eliminating and replacing the indigenous Palestinian Arab population.

Prior to the 1890s, Jews made up less than 4 percent of the population of Palestine. The rest were Arabic-speaking Muslims and Christians. Initially, the Zionist movement attempted to buy land from Palestinian and Arab landowners, expelling Palestinian tenant farmers and families who had worked the land for centuries. However, it soon became clear that the majority of Palestinians had no interest in selling their land to a European immigrant population.

When, in 1947, the UN decided to partition Palestine against the will of the indigenous Palestinian Arabs, proposing to hand over 54 percent of the territory to the Zionists, Jews still made up only 33 percent of the population, while Palestinian Arabs were 67 percent of the 1,845,000 residents. Less than a year later, by the end of 1948, the demographic table had been inverted, Jewish settlers now being a majority.

This was because, in the months leading up to the proposed partition, between December 1947 and April 1948, Zionist militias carried out strategic attacks on Palestinian cities and villages, terrorising and killing thousands of Palestinian civilians. Zionist militias would eventually forcibly expel 1 million Arabs from 418 of 476 Palestinian cities, towns and villages, with 750,000 fleeing to neighbouring states, while another 150,000 became internally displaced refugees inside the newly established Zionist state.

Of the 418 Palestinian villages and towns ethnically cleansed by Israel, 385 were completely destroyed as Israel seized control of 78 percent of historic Palestine.

Regardless of whether Zionist settlers attempted to purchase land or forcibly take it as they did in 1948, the settler colonial dynamic of the Zionist movement and the Israeli state remains the same. In both cases, the Zionist movement sought to colonise a territory permanently by replacing the original population.

Today, Israel remains an expansionist settler colonial state. In the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem, Israel continues to steal Palestinian land and ethnically cleanse Palestinians in order to build illegal Jewish-only colonies, while inside Israel it seeks to ethnically cleanse between 70,000 and 100,000 Palestinian Bedouin citizens of Israel from their homelands in the Naqab (Negev), to make way for Jewish settlements and towns.

A 2012 report by the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to housing condemned Israel, saying, “From the Galilee and the Negev to east Jerusalem and the West Bank, the Israeli authorities promote a territorial development model that excludes, discriminates against and displaces minorities, particularly affecting Palestinian communities, side by side with the accelerated development of predominantly Jewish settlements”.

Myth#3: Israel is the plucky David fighting the Arab Goliath

Zionist mythology has consistently painted Israel as being locked in a David vs. Goliath battle for survival, aggressive Arab states seeking to destroy it at every turn. Even today, the birth of the Zionist state in 1948 and the 1967 war in which Israel seized control of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem are depicted in this manner.

This narrative was not systematically challenged until the emergence of Israel’s “new historians” in the 1980s. The new historians such as Avi Shlaim have revealed that the “miraculous” birth of the Israeli state in the face of invading Arab hordes that “enjoyed an overwhelming numerical superiority” is a myth.

According to Shlaim, in mid-May 1948, “the total number of Arab troops, both regular and irregular, operating in the Palestine theatre was under 25,000, whereas the Israel Defence Force (IDF) fielded over 35,000 troops”. By mid-July, Israel’s troops numbered 65,000, increasing to 96,000 by December 1948. In addition, the Zionists forces were better trained and disciplined than the Arab forces. As Shlaim notes, “[T]he final outcome of the war was therefore not a miracle but a faithful reflection of the underlying military balance in the Palestine theatre”.

Similarly, Zionist mythology portrays Israel as facing imminent destruction at the hands of Arab aggressors in 1967. According to Israel’s then foreign minister, Abba Eban – in a speech to the UN on 19 June 1967 justifying Israel’s seizure of Palestinian, Egyptian and Syrian territory – the Zionist state was faced with a clear choice “to live or perish, to defend the national existence or forfeit it for all time”. However, the Six Day War launched by Israel on 5 June against Egypt, Syria and Jordan was not a war of self-defence but of expansion, allowing Israel to seize and occupy the rest of historic Palestine.

As Israeli historian Ilan Pappe notes in his most recent book, The Ten Myths of Israel, ever since 1948 sections of Israel’s military and political elites had been seeking an opportunity to seize what was left of Palestine in order to establish a “greater Israel”. According to Pappe, the 1967 war provided “the best opportunity” to do this.

Prior to the war starting, both Israel and the United States were aware that Egyptian president Gamal Nasser was not seeking war. At the time of the Egyptian troop movement, Yitzhak Rabin, the chief of Israeli military forces, informed his government that although Egyptian troops had been deployed to the Sinai, they were not in an offensive position and that “Nasser did not want war”. Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, who served as a cabinet minister in the “unity” government during the Six Day War, later admitted that Israel was the aggressor, saying “We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him”.

Israeli president and former defence minister Ezer Weizmann, who served as Israel’s chief of military operations in 1967 and was instrumental in launching the June war, similarly admitted that Israel faced no threat of destruction and that Israel’s military superiority ensured that, had Egypt attacked first, it would have “suffered complete defeat” within 13 hours.

In 1972, general Mattiyahu Peled, who led Israel’s war efforts in 1967, once and for all debunked the myth that Israel went to war because it faced imminent destruction. According to Peled, the claim was a “bluff”, and Israel faced no such threat. Peled later condemned Israel’s actions as a “cynical campaign of territorial expansion”.

Today, Israel fields one of the strongest military forces in the world. According to Global Firepower’s 2014 ranking, Israel’s military capabilities ranked 11 out of 133 countries, four spots ahead of Canada and nine spots ahead of Australia. Since World War Two, Israel has been the largest cumulative recipient of US foreign aid. In 2016, the USA signed a new 10-year military assistance deal with Israel, the largest in US history, worth $38 billion. The deal was a 27 percent increase on the previous military assistance deal between Israel and the USA, signed in 2007.

US imperialism seeks to control the vast oil and natural gas reserves of the Middle East. In this effort, Israel became US imperialism’s chief ally, the US-Israel alliance being based on a shared political interest – opposition to any form of Arab radicalism that might threaten either US or Israeli domination in the region.

Myth#4: Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East

Israel is often touted as “the only democracy in the Middle East”. But far from being a democracy for all its citizens, Israel is an ethnocratic state that does not afford all of its citizens the same rights. One of the first laws passed by the newly established Israel in 1949 was the “Absentees” property law, which allowed the confiscation of land and property belonging to more than 1 million Palestinians who had been forced to flee their homeland by Zionist militias in 1948.

Between 1949 and 1966, Palestinian citizens of Israel were forced to live under martial law. Unlike Jewish citizens of the Zionist state, Palestinian citizens were regularly subject to curfews and political repression, Israeli military governors ruling over the lives of Palestinians with impunity. Despite being citizens of Israel, Palestinians could not leave or enter their towns without permits, restrictions were placed on their education and employment, and political activity and organisations were banned.

Writing for Haaretz on 16 June 2013, Palestinian activist and novelist Odeh Bisharat recounted his own family’s experience under Israel’s military regime between 1949 and 1966. In addition to the daily struggle to obtain exit permits to work in “Jewish cities”, Bisharat noted that Shin Bet (Israel’s secret police) and its network of collaborators/informants were omnipresent in the lives of all Palestinians, ensuring that “the military administration settled in our homes, nestled between the sheets of our beds, between father and son, man and wife, until everything seemed suspect”.

According to researcher Sarah Ozacky-Lazar, Israel’s military rule “penetrated all areas of civilian life and became a state instrument for political, economic and social control of the Arab minority”.

Despite martial law formally ending in 1966, Palestinian citizens of Israel are still not afforded the same democratic and civil rights as Jewish citizens. According to Israeli human rights group Adalah – the Legal Centre of the Arab Minority – since 1948, more than 50 discriminatory laws have been enacted against Palestinians, who make up 20 percent of Israel’s population.

In 2015 and 2016, Israel enacted a further seven laws that discriminate against Palestinian citizens and Palestinians living under Zionist occupation in east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. Adalah explains that these new laws “undermine the most basic legal protections, rights and freedoms, including the rights to vote and to be elected, to political expression, essential procedural safeguards for detainees, and to ownership of property”.

Among the laws was one that allows the Jewish majority in the Knesset (parliament) to oust elected Arab members and their political lists purely on the basis of political or ideological considerations. According to Adalah, the law is the “latest attempt by the government to delegitimise the elected political representatives of the Palestinian minority in Israel”, following a range of laws including the “Electoral Threshold Law”, “Nakba Law” and “Boycott Law” in order to silence the Palestinian Arab public.

The reality of Israeli apartheid

Despite more than 50 laws legally enshrining discrimination against non-Jewish citizens of Israel, its governments and their supporters deny the apartheid nature of the Zionist state, claiming Israel is nothing like South Africa.

While Israel has not sought to impose exactly the same apartheid regime on Palestinians that existed in South Africa, it imposes a system of rights and privileges according to ethnic and religious identity, which fits the definition of apartheid enshrined in the 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid.

According to the convention, apartheid consists of denying members of a racial group the right to life, the infliction of arbitrary arrest, illegal imprisonment, serious bodily and/or mental harm (such as torture or degrading punishment), the exploitation of racial groups by forced labour and the imposition of living conditions aimed at destruction – in part or whole – of the group.

Furthermore, Article Two of the convention identifies apartheid as denying “basic human rights and freedoms” to racial groups and the implementation of “any legislative measures and other measures calculated to prevent a racial group or groups from participation in the political, social, economic and cultural life of the country”, including the right to nationality, education, employment, freedom of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association and freedom of residence and movement.

While Palestinian citizens of Israel are subject to a range of apartheid laws in areas as wide ranging as land, employment and political activity, one of Israel’s most notorious apartheid laws is the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law (Temporary Provision), which was enacted in 2003. The law prohibits the granting of citizenship or residency status to Palestinians from the occupied territories, as well as Arabs from Iran, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, who are married to Israeli citizens. According to Adalah, the law specifically affects Palestinian citizens of Israel, preventing thousands of families from living together.

Israel’s apartheid regime is enacted against both Palestinian citizens and Palestinians living under Israeli military occupations. Since 1967, Palestinians living in the occupied territories have been subject to military laws, which control every aspect of their daily lives. Palestinians are regular subjected to a wide range of punitive punishments and restrictions, including the destruction of homes and crops and restrictions on freedom of movement.

Israel’s apartheid regime in the occupied territories also allows the detention and arrest of large numbers of Palestinian civilians without charge or trial. Detained Palestinians, and their lawyers, have no right to know what they are accused of and no right to access the military “evidence” being used against them.

Since 1967, more than 40 percent of Palestine’s male population, including minors, have been detained by Israel. According to Addameer, the Palestinian Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, “Physical and psychological torture against Palestinian and Arab prisoners has been a distinguishing factor of Israeli occupation since 1967”. The association estimates that since the beginning of the first Palestinian intifada in 1987, at least 30,000 Palestinians have been tortured by Israel.